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An Alabama Homage To The Heirloom Tomato

UPDATE: Post from Michael Sznajderman at Alabama NewsCenter.

As fall approaches and prognosticating about football replaces a siesta by the swimming pool, let’s take a moment to appreciate one pleasure that will soon be gone from our plates till next summer: the heirloom tomato.

Cullman farmers Jacob and Payton Sandlin know the joys, hard work and heartache that come with delivering heirloom tomatoes to hungry customers at Birmingham’s Pepper Place farmer’s market. They produce about 25 varieties over the course of the summer and sell heirloom tomato plants in the spring.

“They’re a struggle,” Jacob Sandlin acknowledges as he spies the baskets of heirlooms surrounding him in his market stall. Unlike the sturdy, hybridized tomatoes grown on giant commercial farms and shipped by the tens of thousands coast to coast, heirlooms are typically thinner-skinned, more susceptible to bruising, less resistant to pests than their genetically modified brethren, less forgiving of weather extremes, and more prone to drop off the stem, just to name a few complications.

Some folks might also be put off by their lack of consistency. They come in countless shapes, different sizes and varying colors, from bold reds to shades of orange, green and purple, and combinations therein – even striped. Some are puckered or pitted, some smooth, some bumpy, often with cracks and crevices.

While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there’s no denying the flavor: Depending on the variety, heirlooms are tantalizingly sweet or achingly acidic, or somewhere between. Texture-wise, they can be meaty or downright juicy – whatever floats your tomato boat.

This year, the heirlooms the Sandlins raised at their Holly Pond farm came in a little later than normal, because of a cooler spring and lots of summer rain showers, which means they still had plenty to sell beyond the typical end of the season in late July. But as August 2018 faded toward September, the days left to devour a luscious Purple Cherokee or tangy Mint Julep from Sandlin Farm were coming to an end.

“Typically, August, we’re about petering out,” Jacob Sandlin said, although on a mid-August Saturday they still had about a dozen makes and models to choose from, with evocative names like “Porkchop,” “Paul Robeson,” “Lucid Jim” and “Solar Flare.”

So what’s an heirloom? Definitions vary, but essentially they must come from seeds that have been passed down and regrown for several generations. If an heirloom is cross-pollinated with another variety, the seeds from that offspring must be passed down and regrown for several generations for it to be considered an heirloom.

Sandlin said true heirlooms must be grown and passed down for at least 50 years. “Nothing hybridized about it. That’s why you get the colors that you get, that’s why you get the shapes that you get, and that’s why you get, most importantly, the flavor profile that you’re going to get out of it.”

Sandlin gets some of his seeds from a grower in Napa Valley, California. Another variety hails from Nebraska. No basket at his stand is alike; one picked at random contained a baseball-sized crimson beauty, snug up against a grapefruit-sized specimen sporting skin the shade of persimmon, next to an oval-shaped beauty in rose and green tiger stripes. And nestled on top: an enticingly tart “Boar’s Tooth” that looked more like a pickle than a ‘mater.

Sandlin encourages folks to raise their own next spring, although he warns they require a little more care and patience than the standard variety. But it’s worth it, he promises.

“If you want to grow it, you can’t go into it half-heartedly. Be ready for disappointment, but everyone should try it.”

And how does he advise eating a perfectly imperfect heirloom?

“I like it fresh, sliced on a plate, twice a day. I’m not a tomato sandwich guy. But I don’t mind a good tomato gravy for breakfast.”

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